I remember the lessons I was taught about the Internet as a kid. I played games like InkLink and iSketch, and my mom would always lean over the screen to remind me, “Don’t talk to the strangers. They could be creeps. You never know on the Internet, so don’t hand out any personal details.”
Fast-forward more than 10 years, and as I write this, I’m looking over adoringly at my boyfriend, who was once a stranger on the Internet to me.
Last fall, I made a lot of big life decisions. I transferred universities, found out that I could graduate in just under a year, and moved into an adorable townhouse in Chicago with six other girls. One of the more unexpected symptoms of all this change? I didn’t know anyone.
Telling other university students that you’re a senior doesn’t exactly lend itself to new friendships. I’m older than the freshmen, and everyone else assumes I have friends already. They’re all pretty mistaken, so between the studying and sightseeing I was doing during my first quarter in Chicago, I applied for a few online reality games. I thought that if I couldn’t meet people in person, maybe some of the other lonely people of the world would have turned to the Internet, too, and I could meet them.
Online reality games, or ORGs, are host-organized games often based on reality television shows, such as Survivor or Big Brother. Competitors from around the country, sometimes from around the globe, apply to compete in a series of online challenges ranging from computer games to scavenger hunts, and along the way, they socialize in online chatrooms and vote each other out to win. It’s a cool community of people, and I’d been right; a lot of them were as lonely as I was, despite being surrounded by people.
One particular game, called The Wonka Experiment, started off with something I found unique: Almost everyone was close to my age. I’d gotten used to playing with teens and empty-nesters, but this cast consisted of mostly twentysomethings. It was something I hadn’t realized I’d been looking for until I found it, and I had a good feeling about this entire cast, save for one particular player.
His name was RJ, and he was, for lack of a better word, a jerk. He made snide comments in the season’s chat about other players, had an ego the size of a small country, and unfortunately, was winning every single challenge. I spent a number of hours complaining about him to my teammates (which, thankfully, he wasn’t one of), hoping and praying that if we switched teams, I wouldn’t be stuck with him.
Apparently, I didn’t hope or pray loudly enough. Because sure enough, when we switched up the teams, I got stuck with RJ.
As the game progressed and I talked to RJ more and more, I learned a bit about him. He was originally from Philadelphia, and had been living in Florida for grad school. He worked part-time as a physics tutor, but ultimately wanted to be a high school physics teacher, and he had already earned his teaching degree. He had two sisters and a really cute cat named Lucy, who often interrupted our team’s Skype calls by sitting on his keyboard and licking his headset. He almost seemed normal, which I still couldn’t process. I was waiting for the insulting comments and crude humor. But it never fully appeared again.
RJ was voted out of the game in tenth place, and I followed a few places later in seventh. As we waited for the game to finish up so we could cast our votes for a winner, our Skype calls became more and more frequent, and we divulged more and more about ourselves. For some reason, I started to feel that I could really trust him. My roommates reminded me that he was, in effect, just a face and a voice on my laptop. That didn’t matter to me, and I didn’t listen.
I anxiously waited for our Skype calls every night, often accidentally falling asleep during them because I didn’t want them to end. One particularly difficult night, on an overnight camping trip gone bad, RJ stayed up the whole night texting me just so that I wouldn’t feel alone.
I couldn’t believe that I was crushing on a guy I’d never met before. It was a weird feeling, not knowing if the face I saw on Skype truly looked that way in person, not having ever hugged him or even having coffee with him. But I was falling for RJ, and it was getting harder and harder to stop myself. I didn’t know what to do. So one night as we talked on Skype, I abandoned all pretense and simply told him how I felt.
“Of course, I have feelings for you, you ditz.”
I turned bright red, a combination of excitement and embarrassment, and my smile seemed never-ending. This guy, this absolutely incredible, sweet, fun, adorable guy — who I’d once completely despised — had feelings for me. Except, well, he was in another state, and I’d never met him in person.
As I’m writing this, RJ is across the room, talking to a few other people we know from playing ORGs. Occasionally he’ll look over and wink, or blow me a kiss. This is the first time we’ve actually met — he flew here a few days ago for a trip we planned not long after we admitted that we liked each other.
I was so nervous to meet him, not because I didn’t think I’d like him, but because I worried that he wouldn’t like me. My worries, however, evaporated the moment I saw him walking toward me in the airport.
A lot of our relationship is innocent teasing; our other online friends joke that we’re always bickering. But it’s never serious, and we spend the rest of our time talking about all the reasons we like one another, all the plans we might make together, and all the things we still haven’t learned about the other person.
For these few days, though, instead of staring longingly at my screen, I get to lean in and kiss him when he says something sweet or hug him instead of texting him after a long and difficult day of class. It’s a luxury I’m taking advantage of while I can, since in a few short days, we’ll go back to Skype calls and good morning text messages.
I’m hoping I can visit him over spring break, and he wants to fly back for my graduation ceremony in June. That’s the difficult part of an Internet-based relationship. I don’t get to see him whenever I’d like. So we’ve crammed his visit with dinner dates, movies, and lots of talking until we fall asleep — just like we do online almost every night.
It kind of baffles me that the guy across the room from me was a stranger once. I still don’t feel like it’s real — he can’t possibly be that rude moron I met in an online game. But he is. And for the record? He told me that he couldn’t stand me when we first met, either. I guess love’s just funny that way.